Ask Richard: Atheist’s Boyfriend Doesn’t Take Her Views Seriously January 23, 2012

Ask Richard: Atheist’s Boyfriend Doesn’t Take Her Views Seriously

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I have been a fence sitter for a long time. It’s only been this last year that I came to terms with my disbelief. Saying I’m an atheist hasn’t been easy. Most people still don’t know. The subject doesn’t come up. Which I guess I’m fortunate in that respect. I am not outspoken or any sort of activist. But here’s the problem: my boyfriend of 3 years says he’s agnostic. He doesn’t like the idea of “hardcore atheists” (whatever that means). He pokes fun at me when religion comes up. Like when we watch a movie where people are praying or talking about god or when we are with his family and they pray before a meal he’ll stare at me to see if I have a reaction.

I’ve recently been trying to get into touch with any atheist organizations in my area. One is about an hour away. He jokingly said we should go and hold signs up saying we believe in god. (I can’t make it to the meet-up this time) I am at a loss on how to make him understand. I don’t know if he just doesn’t take my views seriously, or he’s hoping he doesn’t have to. Thanks for “listening”.

Megan

Dear Megan,

I think that your either/or assessment of your boyfriend is correct in both ways: He doesn’t take your views seriously, and he is hoping he doesn’t have to.

Something you should also assess is the strength of your self-esteem. You need to be able to say with conviction to yourself and others, “I deserve to be taken seriously, and I deserve a boyfriend who takes me seriously. I will not be discounted, dismissed or disrespected just to have a boyfriend or any other relationship.” If you’re already at that place, good. If not yet, then you should work to improve your sense of self-worth first.

Your decision about your disbelief is very new, and it came after considerable difficulty, so it is understandable that you don’t feel confident about it yet. There is often an emotional disquiet that lingers for a while after one reaches an intellectual conclusion of atheism. You need time and a safe person with whom you can share your views, understand them better, and become more comfortable discussing them. Your boyfriend might not be the best person for this task. Definitely go to the meet-up you found, and any other opportunity to meet atheists, but consider going there without him for the time being.

Once your confidence in your self-worth and your confidence about your views are stronger, you and he need to sit down and have a few serious talks.

It appears that he is not at all comfortable with what he thinks is your position. I say “what he thinks” because he might have misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions. Teasing, joking, and poking fun may be his indirect way of relieving his own tension about this topic, and his way to avoid confronting it directly. He is a little passive-aggressive about it. Passive-aggressive methods are usually very annoying to people. You will need to assertively demand that he stop such behaviors, and be direct, frank and respectful with you. Do your best to make it safe for him to be straight forward, and at the same time make it clear that you expect the same courtesy of safety from him.

Working together, the two of you should clarify exactly what he means by “hardcore atheist,” so both of you know if you actually fit whatever that means to him. During religious scenes in a movie or while others are saying grace at the table, his pointedly staring at you is rhetorical. He’s expressing something. Clarify exactly what he is saying by his stares, and tell him how you feel when he does that.

Clarify also what he means when he says he’s agnostic. He might mean the narrow definition that the existence of gods as described by believers is not knowable. He might mean the more common “Switzerland” stance of “Maybe yes, maybe no, I’m staying neutral.” He might reveal something entirely different, such as, “Actually, I do believe, but I said I’m agnostic because I didn’t want to fight with you about it.” Who knows what might be behind this discomfort he seems to have?

The point is, you need to know. He was your boyfriend for two years before you became more decided about your atheism, so he might have conflicting feelings about this change. Because differences in religious views can be extremely divisive, all these things should be out in the open, or misconceptions, assumptions, and resentments will drive a wedge between you.

Megan, I think that if you take this challenge as an opportunity for the two of you to grow and mature, as well as to practice better communication skills, your relationship will be healthier, more satisfying, and more beneficial for both of you.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.


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  • Reginald Selkirk

    my boyfriend of 3 years says he’s agnostic…  He jokingly said we should go and hold signs up saying we believe in godYour boyfriend sounds confused.

  • Juju

    Nah, he’s not confused… i’d do the same thing. It’s probably not smart but I get the idea. He probably just wants to show that Atheists can be as fanatic as believers are. The thing is: Not every atheist or christian group is fanatic… that is why his idea ist not that smart.

    I agree with Richard that he’s a little bit passive aggressive about this.

  • Megan,

    From your description it seems to me that your boyfriend is more of an apatheist meaning that he really doesn’t care about religion one way or the other. It also seems that he has a hard time relating to people that are passionate about things or have gone through any difficult life-changing events.  The whole “lets hold up signs…” is a way to belittle one particular group of people who may have suffered and overcome discrimination in their lives.   Perhaps he is a little jealous that he hasn’t gone through anything significant in his life.   Perhaps the only way he can currently relate is to make fun of people.  Perhaps he just has a little growing up to do.  Perhaps he will grow out of it.   It is something you will have to figure out for yourself.  Good luck.

  • been there

    “Agnostic” can also mean “I believe in a God but distrust organized religion, and I may or may not read and believe religious texts”.  Before I identified as atheist I identified as agnostic because although I was never very religious, I still had it hammered in my head that God exists.  Perhaps your boyfriend has not given it much thought, assumes God exists, and find atheism threatening because then he would have to examine his beliefs?

  • An “agnostic” wants to go troll “hardcore atheists”? Sounds like a troll who wants to troll.

  • Forrest Cahoon

    Although Richard’s response is written as how to make the relationship work, it’s certainly possible that the best course of action for Megan is to find a new boyfriend. I have to wonder, if he doesn’t respect her views on this issue, does he respect her views on other issues? It’s a disturbingly common attitude among men — especially from smaller communities, as “nearest atheist meetup an hour away” might indicate — that women shouldn’t need to be taken seriously.

  • Anonymous

    “Actually, I do believe, but I said I’m agnostic because I didn’t want to fight with you about it.”
    I think that’s probably the closest. Except it should be
    “I do believe but said I’m agnostic because I want to sleep with you and wasn’t sure if you’d date a theist.

  • David

    Your boyfriend isn’t being respectful of you. In fact, he’s being a dick. 

    If you love him, and want the relationship to work, do what Richard says and have an open, honest discussion about this. No jokes. No passive aggressiveness. Ask him what he means by “hardcore atheist.” Find out what he really means by calling himself an agnostic.

    If he can’t have a serious conversation with you and come to respect you for who you are, DTMFA. This has nothing to do with his position. It has everything to do with how he treats you. It has to do with how he treats you. If he can’t accept you as you are, don’t waste another second of your life on him.

  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into the agnostic vs atheist argument. I call myself an atheist, because in real world situations people understand that for all intents and purposes I don’t believe in God. However, when pushed on a more specific term for what I am I call myself a 6 on the Dawkins 7 point spectrum on belief. The scale runs from 1 – knowing that there is a God – to a 7 – knowing that there isn’t a God. Arguably no one knows for sure that there isn’t a God so the reasonable position is to be a 6 (Dawkins states that he is a 6 also).

    Also, what I have found useful in my relationship (married 17 years) is to plainly identify and communicate to the other person what is OK, and what is not OK. Passive agressive behavior is not OK.

    Hopefully that helps. Good luck.

  • Rachel_haas2000

    Thank you all for your input. I do like Richard’s advice. My boyfriend is not a dick btw. But yes in this situation he is being a dick.
    I can’t bring myself to believe. I can’t even pretend to believe. But I am scared of being and out atheist. I think he is scared of it as well. Its very lonely here on this side of the fence. I think its easier for him if we both sit on the fence because our options are bigger for social interaction.

  • Parse

    Rachel, 
    What social interactions that you’d actually miss would you miss out on if you self-identify as an atheist? Not as an ‘out’ atheist, or an ‘activist’ atheist, but just viewing yourself as an atheist.
    You’d still be welcome at cultural events – I went to my SO’s church’s Apple Festival, and I’m looking forward to an upcoming Greek food fest put on by a different church.  It’s not like they check membership cards at the door (well, they may if they give discounts to members, but you know what I’m trying to say here).

    I think you need to have a serious talk with your boyfriend, about what’s appropriate for joking about, and what’s not.  

    Finally, whether or not your boyfriend is an asshole is hard for anybody else here to determine.  Remember, the only knowledge we have of him is what was in your initial letter, and what’s in your comment here.   That being said, one of my favorite Dave Barry quotes is,  “If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person,” and the examples you’ve described certainly sound like he’s a dick to strangers.

  • Anonymous

    Since he doesn’t seem to have respect for Megan and apparently doesn’t understand what atheism is, what’s the chance he is non-practicing religious and just called himself agnostic  to get into her atheist pants. . . er . . .  good graces?   If Megan wants a family and a secure relationship, then this issue looks like a deal breaker.

  • Paul

    The guy sounds like a jerk.  There ought to be very little conflict between an atheist and an agnostic unless someone is trying to *make* a conflict.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know, my gf is agnostic and whenever the topic comes up her constant insisting that I (CanadianNihilist) can’t know for sure, drives me round the fucking bend.

    I get that she doesn’t know or not. But I’m pretty sure I know what I believe/disbelieve in.

  • Anonymous

    It sounds like he is actually a believer to me.  See other articles for hints on how to handle believer/atheist relationships. 🙂

  • Have you asked him if he’s scared, or what freaks him out about you being an atheist? IMHO, ppl often make a joke of things that freak them out, or otherwise make it into a big deal (like him staring at you when ppl in movies  are praying, etc). Seems to me like this actually weighs pretty heavily on his mind. He may even be a little threatened by you, because you’re ‘braver’ than he is about facing up to what you do/don’t believe.

  • Marco Conti

    I’ll have to give you the benefit of the doubt when you say he is not a dick but he is being one here. To me he sounds like a world class prick but then again, I don;t know him,.

    One thing that popped in my mind is that maybe he is one of those guys that in a few years will find Jesus and will proclaim “I was once an atheist myself”. They have to come from somewhere and he seems more confused than anything at the moment.

    You’ll find that many atheists will also proclaim to be agnostic. I am one. I am agnostic in the sense that I really don’t know if there is a god or not, but I cannot categorically prove there isn’t a god. I am an atheist because given the evidence I have I don’t personally believe in god. But should evidence come up, I am open to changing my views.

    Your boyfriend seems to me to be more an “apatheist”. Someone that really did not put a lot of thinking in the matter yet he feels he can ridicule you for your beliefs. That’s pretty rich if you ask me. Maybe you could start by asking him what he really means by agnostic and atheist. That may clarify his position better.